Remembering Zambia’s flawed 2016 election as 2021 looms

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Reading Sakwa James’ recent blog on the 2021 Ugandan elections gave me a sense of déjà vu – here we go again, another flawed election. His description is just what happened in 2016, when the Zambian power brokers followed the example set by Museveni and manipulated the general election.

In my own paper on the 2016 Zambian election I described how the same ‘play book’ was used in both countries that year. Access to state resources made it easy for the incumbents to control the situation to their advantage and for the opposition to be significantly manoeuvred. The experiences of Zimbabwe also comes to mind. In Zambia, perhaps the most obvious tool used was an impressive array of new military-style vehicles, uniforms and equipment for the police. They made it look like government had gone shopping on a Hollywood war movie set. In 2020 the game has obviously accelerated, with newly procured riot-squad vehicles and equipment.

Newly procured riot-squad vehicles and equipment, Lusaka, 20th August 2020. Credit- Lusaka Times, 26th September 2020.

So much for the myth of ‘peaceful Zambia’. The procurement of such expensive hardware also confirms appallingly poor prioritization of scarce government resources and another major contribution to an already heavily debt-ridden budget.

The role of fear

Of course, the fearsome appearance of such equipment a year before the next election is strategically timed, and very publicly flags that a no-nonsense approach will be taken against any opposition in the lead-up to August 2021. Instilling such fear in the population by this and other means raises the question as to why the ruling party feels it has to resort to such steps. The Zambian Post editorial of 22 August 2016 addressed that issue, paraphrasing Steinbeck, and saying ‘Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts, fear of loss of power.’ That sentiment is just as relevant today as it was then.

Fear is obviously driving the ruling party which is  rightly afraid of the current popularity of the opposition and of the personal consequences of losing. As a reader commented on seeing the photos of the array of new equipment in the newspaper, “Weaponizing the police with military equipment against the population is an arbitrary [clear] admission of failure.” This year there are also other signs of interference, including with voter registration processes, violence by cadres against the opposing parties and failure of the judiciary and police to uphold the law.

Recognizing the seriousness of the threats to their freedoms and to the state of the nation, some senior citizens bravely joined together and spoke out in August this year, despite the fear of consequences to their personal safety. One group launched a new organization and made a public statement which was swiftly denigrated by a government spokesperson.  Others held a meeting in a Lusaka hotel with the topic being ‘Is democracy on retreat in Zambia?’ Former Minister Bob Sichinga spoke out to say (paraphrased) that he hoped that no blood would be shed before change happened in Zambia but cautioned that citizens should be prepared for such. Recognizing the very serious situation the country was in he observed that “Zambia was at a crossroads and that there was currently a State capture of every institution of governance, including Parliament”.

Because of the threatening atmosphere the usually outspoken Civil Society organizations and major Churches have been very subdued, not daring to be similarly brave.

The role of international and regional ‘umpires’

A feature of African elections over the past decade or so has been the role played by international and regional observer teams. But their monitoring observations have often been surprising. In the 2016, as Table Two in my paper shows, their conclusions were largely positive despite many blatant irregularities committed by all major state bodies during the elections. Many Zambians were appalled when it became obvious that almost none of the observer teams  were willing to declare the election a travesty. None of the regional organisations that are meant to promote good governance held up a ‘red card’ to protest at the injustices and only a few commentators added minor provisos to their approvals. It was left to the Carter Centre, political commentators,  academics and one Zambian NGO to report that the process had been significantly flawed. Africa Confidential included Zambia in its list of rigged 2016 elections.

Even the UN failed to speak out loudly about the many infringements on human rights. It was clear that the millions of dollars provided by them and other donors appeared had been largely ineffective in improving systems and protecting voters’ rights. Some other agenda appeared to be at play, as I discuss in my paper.

Playing the same game in 2021?

Such a token performance leads to the question as to what they will do about next year’s elections, especially given that the current signs indicate an even more severe crackdown than in 2016. Will they continue to play out the charade of contributing support for democratic processes and at the same time, fail to speak out about what are likely to be deeply flawed processes Worse still, as Mills bluntly said (paraphrased) on the 22nd of August, 2016 (link no longer available), their very presence risks legitimizing fraudulent outcomes.  If this is the case next year then the credibility of the international community and regional bodies will be completely ruined. Surely they would be better off saving their money and staying at home.

The inevitability of 2021?

Without access to state resources and controls, and with the rule of law largely weakened voters cannot hope to sway pre-determined results. It is therefore left to the international community to speak up and act decisively otherwise there is a very strong risk that Zambia will join the other dictatorships in 2021. If this eventuates, Zambians will not only have lost their rights. The country will also have little chance of receiving urgently needed economic recovery support from international financial bodies and investors and of receiving a positive business rating. The election ‘winners’ will be safe from being charged with theft and mis-use of state resources, amongst other illegalities, but they will inherit an economic corpse.

The writing is on the wall, now is the time for interventions, but by whom and how?  Does the world want to see Zambia join Zimbabwe as another basket-case and Uganda as another dictatorship? There are international options as I wrote in my 2016 article: If ‘quiet diplomacy’ by key members of the Zambian donor community fails then targeted restrictive measures aimed at key officials could be instituted. More broadly trade and aid restrictions and could be introduced and Zambia removed from the Commonwealth. But action needs to be taken now, before it is too late.

Or does the international community need a certain critical mass of dead bodies before it is motivated to take action?

Margaret O’Callaghan is currently an Independent Researcher. As a former member of the UN Country team in Zambia she was very concerned about the events during the 2016 elections and the role played by the International Community and has been seeing clear signs of a repeat and even more desperate performance by the ruling party in 2021.

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